“It’s a holy day.”
“No it isn’t. It’s a regular day.”
“Why are they marching us off to church then?”
“So they can film us. They’re perverse.”
One of the reasons I’d chosen Gerry Richards as my friend was because he used words such as perverse. He also read books for fun and listened to Frank Zappa. Gerry was an evil genius. A few years later he would be killed in a war. No one was sure which war. We just heard he was dead.
Brown pants, yellow shirts, plaid ties no tropically fevered Scotsman could’ve conceived of.
“Check out Dalfino,” Jeff LaFlamme shouted. I watched a lot of sitcoms and knew Jeff was going to grow up to be a maitre’d.
Perhaps due to the encroachment of a nearby swelling city St. Paul Junior High was experiencing a pigeon infestation. Effortlessly triumphing daily over larger pests, spitefully clogged pipes and untimely bodily discharges, our stalwart custodian Dalfino crouched sniper-like, one Dickied knee to the tarmac, pellet gun trained. His aim was true as evidenced by the metal peppered corpses and stray gray feathers littering the fading-lined sloped parking lot that doubled as a playground. The girls, though sporting oppressively modest skirts the same color and demoralizing pattern as our loosely knotted nooses, didn’t bother with icks. Most of them smoked hash and dated high school dropouts who tooled around in Bondoed Camaros rocking to Sabbath in fingerless gloves.
I nodded toward the alley we always ducked down to ditch the Holy Spirit.
“No,” Gerry said. “My faith has returned.”
“Sister, does brimstone smell like rotten eggs?”
You weren’t supposed to talk in church unless you were saying what God wanted to hear. But even God had to know how bad it stunk in there. Everyone, including the camera crew sent from a local television station to preserve our Roman voodoo ceremony for posterity, showed visible signs of a barely repressed ingrained response to flee the deadly stench. Sister Ernestine and her brood were the exceptions. Nuns always pretended not to notice anything although the priest conducting the service was obviously quite pained.
The inescapable aromatic assault caused delightful ritualistic chaos. Hymns were forgotten. Choreography wiped from memory. When participants were expected to kneel, half stood. When standing was required a quarter sat and a dizzier portion dropped into genuflection only to bounce quickly upwards, cartilage popping like an underwater Fourth of July. As I made my way to the pew after communion I tripped on a cluster of cables.
“Somebody’s going to break their neck.”
Gerry showed Bob Fish, our beloved bus driver, the small blocks of roofing insulation that when rubbed together created a nauseating odor. “Fart rocks.”
“Then I spotted the extension cords. One lighting truss toppled onto the other and the crew, numbed by lugubrious organ, couldn’t rouse themselves in time.”
Bob cackled, puffed twice on his Lucky and swerved our yellow ark into a shiny new garbage can left by some fool on the sidewalk. The gleaming dented projectile sailed majestically, bouncing off an armored mailbox before committing a smirking gnome to that Enchanted Glade in the sky.
We cheered and passed around the last of the blackberry brandy.
I hated getting off the bus because it meant I was home. If I had been told I was adopted, grown in a test tube or shipped special from another planet I would not have required much convincing. Unfortunately I could feel the worst traits of my old man coursing through the veins of my mother’s diminutive frame.
As I removed my uniform I experienced one of those moments, they occurred frequently, when I was embarrassed to be an unwilling cog in the absurd machine known as the Fontana family. In a handful of disheartening moments I’d be lacing shit caked boots while my friend Seth, who attended a different school because he wasn’t Catholic, chilled in a cool chair in his parent’s modern art and book filled house, wearing checkerboard sneakers and watching music television on cable.
“We’re hillbillies with two Buicks,” I fumed. “Gramp came from the old country alone when he was 12 but somehow sent his son to Choate. Shouldn’t we have evolved past this?”
I grabbed another loaf of Wonder Bread from the hundreds stacked on the shelf, ripped open the plastic and dumped the contents into a sturdy waxed box which once contained bananas. I filled four, arranged them on a wagon and hauled the load around my grandparent’s enormous garden to the fenced in, lightly wooded area where for some goddamn reason we were raising three steers. I unlatched the shoddily constructed gate. My father, although a tempestuous blue windbreakered lunatic, was no carpenter and the bulls penetrated the perimeter at their whim, venturing across the road to graze peacefully on the greens of Timberline Golf Course.
For all their habitual misery my parents enjoyed throwing parties, cookouts mainly. I was hauling lawn furniture when an RV pulled into the driveway, longhorns fixed to the grill. A cowboy dandy sat behind the wheel. Uncle Alfred. He was my grandmother’s brother and while the word was not said out loud he was in the mafia. I’d heard, or overheard, a story of his involvement in a racket where Lincolns were swiped right off the assembly line and when the law picked up his trail he dug a huge hole and buried the evidence.
“Johnny.” He tousled my hair and put his arm around me. I liked Alfred. He had a pool table and lots of guns. I wasn’t so keen on his turquoise rings, silver buckles and string ties but he treated me okay for an adult.
“Where’s your gramma? Cooking?”
“Where else, want a beer?”
“A quick one, I’m heading down South. Gonna be a worm farmer.”
Nothing my relatives said surprised me.
No one wanted to play goalie because you had to put down your drink but Aunt Clara, being the sweetheart she was, took goal for one team. She’d worked forty years in a factory. Now retired she and my grandmother spent sunny days following the mountains in her little yellow Plymouth. From the moment Clara arrived she’d been telling everyone how when she got out of her car last night there was a huge something, all blinking lights and whirring, hovering above her house.
“Woo hoo, woo hoo,” Clara called to the mysterious craft. Unable to attract their attention she went inside and made a cup of tea.
I volunteered for second goalie. While nobody actually believed Clara nobody disbelieved her. Not long ago there were multiple sightings of cigar shaped objects in the area and she had no cause to lie. I dove, successfully deflecting a shot and as I collected myself glanced around at the less athletically inclined guests.
Dick, a red-faced, white-haired ex-cop, lounged contentedly by the cluster of coolers. His consistently jolly mood, lager induced or not, was refreshing.
Pat, stocky and stubbly, spent much of his life in the IRA and was currently a prison guard as the skills he possessed didn’t qualify him for much more or at least any vacancy he wished to occupy.
Uncle Alfred decided to rest a piece and chow down before beginning his long haul. He sat between them, loaded plate on his aqua lap, entwined in lively conversation.
Tom Walter Finley, an itinerant fiddle scraper who traveled with a plastic half gallon of generic bourbon in his dilapidated suitcase, snuck the ball past me chuckling. A long time acquaintance of my progenitors he was sharing my room while gigging at the Pumpernickel Pub
Everyone ate and everyone drank and when dusk fell the older kids ambled off to roll joints. We were not missed as by then the adult males were embroiled in a heated card game and the females were settled into the living room sipping wine coolers and discussing the latest romance novels.
Alfred left the next morning, just another eccentric relative. Fearing contamination, while in actuality being primary carriers, my parents gradually withdrew from all extended family proceedings although when the ghost of my mother's mother began haunting the house they had no choice but to be hospitable.